Central to our culture

Cross-country skiing is as Vermont as maple syrup and dairy. It can be a safe alternative to riskier sports for high-school kids, who should be allowed to participate.

PUTNEY — To Gov. Phil Scott:

I applaud your efforts to keep us all safe from COVID-19. However, you made a mistake in shuttering all school sports, some of which are no danger at all for COVID-19. One, specifically, is especially low risk, and is also a central part of Vermont culture.

Cross-country skiing is very central to Vermont culture, as central to it as maple syrup and dairy products - actually, I think, much more so.

Vermont produced Olympians and Olympic coaches such as John Caldwell, Mike Gallagher, Jim Galanes, Bill Koch (silver medalist), Andy Newell, Ida Sargent, Jessie Diggins (gold medalist), Liz Stephen, Sophie Caldwell, Patrick Caldwell, Susan Dunklee, Lowell Bailey, Emily Dreissigacker, Tim Burke, Martha Rockwell, Laura Wilson, Kerrin Petty, and Trina Hosmer. There are likely more.

Taking away cross-country skiing is not the same thing as taking away wrestling or basketball. Taking away cross-country skiing is like cutting off our right arm. It's like canceling the dairy industry. It's a mistake - especially since cross-country skiing is outdoors and inherently socially distanced.

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As a former high school ski coach, I have talked for years with cross-country ski area owners from the state about how their industry is dependent on local Vermonters. Other than Craftsbury Outdoor Center and Prospect Mountain, cross-country ski centers in Vermont don't tend to attract much business from out of state.

That means they are dependent on local kids growing up skiing. To stay in business, they need to keep the school groups coming, because that's where their future business comes from.

It's not just the ski centers. It's also all the shops that sell cross-country ski equipment.

Cross-country skiing is also good for people's physical and mental health, is inexpensive, and can be done in pretty much any Vermonter's backyard. And because it's outdoors, the inherent risk of coronavirus infection is very low.

I think school-based cross-country ski programs should run, even if other sports are unable to safely. Perhaps some kids from other sports will temporarily join in and learn to ski, giving them a lifelong physical activity.

As a cross-country ski coach, I know of safe ways to hold practices, such as having kids ski individually around a loop and having the coach stand in one spot, giving kids technique pointers as they ski by. Some coaches already almost exclusively coach this way.

Many high school cross-country ski teams, including Brattleboro Union High School's, have places where they can practice near their schools. BUHS bought a snowmobile and grooming setup years ago. The school grooms the adjacent farm field.

The athletes walk to practice, as they've been doing for years. That means no risk of coronavirus infection from transportation and plenty of space for them to spread out while skiing. Many high school ski teams not already doing something like that can. Before BUHS did so, the school didn't have a bus to take kids to practice. (I know - I was the coach.) Parents helped get kids to and from practice. There are ways to do the logistics so that kids can ski.

Here in Windham County, most elementary and middle schools have skiable terrain within walking distance: trails, big athletic fields, or both. Even the younger kids' programs can run safely with no busing in many places. (The only possible significant risk that I can see is the transportation.)

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I can understand if you want to cancel high school ski races because of the busing, traveling, and congregating involved. But I don't think you should cancel the practices.

You can issue other directives:

• You could mandate that masks be worn at all times. Seronix makes a good, breathable, effective face mask for sports.

• You could set the minimum distances between participants from 6 feet to 25 feet - still totally doable.

• You could also say that other sports teams are allowed to train in limited group sizes, distanced and masked, outdoors. If the indoor track team wants to go running 25 feet apart outdoors with masks, they should be allowed to. If the basketball team wants to do dribbling and cutting drills 25 feet apart and masked in the parking lot, why not? Perhaps kids would need to split into three groups, each practicing twice a week.

Please pay special attention to cross-country skiing, and prioritize it highly because of its inherent safety, because of how important youth cross-country ski programs are to the larger ski industry in Vermont, and because of the sport's central role in Vermont culture.

Thank you for your attention to this matter.